LONDON — Egypt has continued its rapid build-up of French-made defense capabilities with a deal to acquire two helicopter carriers originally destined for Russia before their delivery was halted by Paris in retaliation for Moscow’s aggression in the Ukraine.
The move further lessens Egypt’s reliance on the US for much of its defense equipment, said experts in the Middle East.
The €950 million (US $1.1 billion) purchase of the two Mistrals is the latest in a string of French-supplied equipment orders by the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi over the last few months.
Since 2014, the Egyptians have ordered four Gowind corvettes and a FREMM frigate from French shipyard DCNS and 24 Rafale fighters from Dassault.
Now that list has been lengthened by last week’s sale of the two helicopters.
Gerald Steinberg, a strategic analyst and professor of political science at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, said one of the noteworthy aspects of the deal is the concrete steps taken by the al-Sisi regime to diversify from its traditional source of US supply.
Following Cairo’s decision earlier this year to purchase the Rafale, the latest Mistral deal further dilutes Egyptian dependence on Washington, he said.
“From the beginning, al-Sisi has warned about the reliability of the US as a supplier,” Steinberg said in reference to the Egyptian leader’s rise to power after ousting Mohammed Morsi, the popularly elected leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a 2013 coup.
“After being slapped with an arms embargo from Washington, he’s made a conscious policy decision to diversify, with funding assistance from Saudi Arabia and the gulf states,” Steinberg said.
Earlier this year US President Barack Obama lifted a two-year defense export ban imposed when the military government of al-Sisi came to power.
Diversification of sources of arms is a new strategy for Egypt and is a key approach to ensure "national sovereignty and to preserve the integrity of the Egyptian national security," according to Maj. Gen. Mohammed Abdullah Shihawi, a military adviser and lecturer at Egypt's Nasser Military Academy.
Defense News has previously reported that Saudi Arabian funding is behind the defense build-up, including this latest deal.
Earlier this month, French officials said the Egyptian Navy would serve as a proxy naval force for the Saudis.
"Access to the Mistral will contribute to the eradication of terrorism dramatically, where the Navy will be able to use it to deal with coastal targets at high speed and will increase the number of marine options to use in the fight," Shihawi said.
The militaries of both nations have been involved in a bloody conflict with rebels in Yemen. Egypt is battling Islamists in its Sinai province and has been involved in air strikes against ISIL factions in Libya earlier this year.
One of the surprises is the speed at which France has delivered some of the equipment. The frigate, and the first three Rafale jets, have already been handed over to Cairo within months of the deals being signed as France relinquished delivery slots for its own military to allow the arms build-up to get underway.
It’s not just France that is benefiting from Egypt’s rearming program.
Last week, the Russian news agency TASS reported that a deal to supply 50 Kamov Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters had also been agreed with the Egyptians. The naval variant of the Ka-52 had been earmarked to equip the Russian Mistral warships.
The first of the Russian warships was approaching handover when Paris pulled the plug on the deal after Moscow seized the Crimea from Ukraine and went on to support separatists fighting to break away from Kiev.
Egypt has also been linked in the Russian media with a possible purchase of Mig combat jets.
Andrew Chuter in London, Awad Mustafa in Dubai and Barbara Opall-Rome in Tel Aviv contributed this report.